In our Cartagena vs Santa Marta comparison, we comprehensively compare these two cities in Colombia in 17 categories to see which is the better city to live in for expats.

Several Medellin Guru readers asked for a comparison of the beach cities Cartagena vs Santa Marta. We previously have compared living in Medellín with several cities in Colombia.

Both Cartagena and Santa Marta are beach cities in Colombia located on the Caribbean coast. Cartagena has a metro population of about 1 million and Santa Marta is about half that size with a population of less than 500,000.

I have met expats living in Cartagena that prefer Cartagena over Santa Marta. But I have also met some expats living in Santa Marta that much prefer it.

I have lived in Medellín for over eight years. But I have traveled to Cartagena over 20 times for business and pleasure and have spent about four months in the city. Cartagena was also the first city I discovered in Colombia back in 2016.

Also, I have traveled several times to Santa Marta on vacation including one longer trip of over one month. In my opinion, both cities have pluses and minuses. No city is perfect.

Note, the following categories in this Cartagena vs Santa Marta comparison are in no particular order. And where possible, we provide some statistics to back up how we chose the winner of each category in our Cartagena vs Santa Marta comparison.

Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean Coast

Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Santa Marta's skyline

Santa Marta’s skyline

1. Climate – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

The two cities tie here. Both Cartagena and Santa Marta are beach cities on the Caribbean and it can get quite hot in either city with similar climates.

In Cartagena, the temperature during the year averages 82 °F (27.8 °C). The daily average high temperature in Cartagena ranges from 87.1 to 89.2 °F (30.6 to 31.8 °C). And the daily average low temperature ranges from 75.0 to 78.3 °F (23.9 to 25.7 °C).

In Santa Marta, the temperature during the entire year averages a slightly warmer 82.9 ° F (28.3 °C). The average daily high temperature in Santa Marta ranges from 89.8 to 92.8 °F (32.1 to 33.8 °C). And in Santa Marta, the average daily low temperature ranges from 72.1 to 77.9 °F (22.3 to 25.5 °C).

The all-time record high in Cartagena was 104 °F (40.0 °C). And the all-time record high in Santa Marta was 100.8 °F (38.2 °C).

In Cartagena the average annual humidity is 81 percent. And in Santa Marta the humidity averages 76 percent during the year. So, Cartagena is somewhat more humid.

In addition, it rains more often in Cartagena than in Santa Marta. For the entire year it rains on average 42.8 inches in Cartagena and 21.5 inches in Santa Marta.

The bottom line is in both cities, it is hot enough that you will definitely need air-conditioning.

2. Cost of Living – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Santa Marta wins here. Apartment properties I have seen in Cartagena in estrato 5 or 6 neighborhoods tend to rent for or sell for at least 30-50 percent higher prices than similar properties in Santa Marta. And I have seen some properties in Cartagena with even higher prices that are double the prices of similar properties in Santa Marta. Cartagena has some of the most expensive prices for real estate in Colombia.

Costs of other things like restaurants, drugstore items and groceries tend to be between 5 to 10 percent higher in Cartagena when compared to Santa Marta.

Several expats I have met living in Cartagena complained about the high cost of living in the city particularly the high real estate prices.

Parque Tayrona near Santa Marta, also known as Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Parque Tayrona near Santa Marta, also known as Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

3. Beaches – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Santa Marta wins here. When comparing the beaches in the city, neither place has that great of beaches in the city. Bocagrande in Cartagena is comparable to Rodadero in Santa Marta. Bocagrande and Rodadero aren’t the best beaches but are fine for a swim or laying in the sun. However, in both places, you will be pestered by people trying to sell stuff to tourists.

Outside of the cities are much better beaches. Outside of Cartagena, Playa Blanca and Isla Grande are nice beaches.

But outside of Santa Marta you have Parque Tayrona with some of the best beaches in all of Colombia. Santa Marta arguably wins this beach category due to the world-class beaches at Parque Tayrona.

Rodadero beach near Santa Marta

Rodadero beach near Santa Marta

4. Traffic – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Santa Marta wins here. In my experience, the traffic in Cartagena is worse than in Santa Marta due to being a bigger city with more cars on the roads.

Traffic can get bad in Cartagena during rush hours. It can sometimes take 40 minutes to an hour during rush hour to get to certain places in Cartagena.

Santa Marta, in comparison, has much less traffic than Cartagena. The worst-case traffic in the smaller city of Santa Marta may mean being stuck in traffic for 20 to 30 minutes.

5. Pollution – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

The two cities tie here. Both Cartagena and Santa Marta are located on the coast. So, there are regular ocean breezes that keep the air clean in both cities. So, air pollution is not really a problem in either city.

However, Santa Marta has water pollution problems.  In 2013, a barge illegally dumped 2,000 tons of coal into the Bay of Santa Marta. The U.S. coal company tried to cover up the massive coal dump, but was photographed by local environmental activist and journalist Alejandro Arias. The ecosystem and marine life of the region in Santa Marta reportedly will not recover for 30 to 40 years.

In addition, there is ongoing environmental contamination to the bay in Santa Marta included the loading and transportation of coal docks, the use of the Manzanares river to dump solid waste into the sea and operations of the Palangana landfill.

Also, Cartagena has water pollution problems. The United Nations has declared the Cartagena bay among the most heavily polluted in the Caribbean.

The Cartagena Bay receives much of Colombia’s pollution and environmental issues, which are drained by the Magdalena River. Approximately 10 percent of all this pollution enters through the Dique Canal and into the Cartagena Bay.

6. Healthcare – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Cartagena wins hereColombia has 23 of the top hospitals in Latin America but none of these are located in Cartagena or Santa Marta.

But since Cartagena is a larger city with a metro population of over 1 million compared to less than 500,000 in Santa Marta, Cartagena has more hospitals, more doctors and more dentists. So, Cartagena arguably wins this category.

Café Del Mar on Wall Surrounding Old City in Cartagena

Café Del Mar on Wall Surrounding Old City in Cartagena

7. Things to Do – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Cartagena wins here. Both Cartagena and Santa Marta have many things to do in the cities as well as many things to do nearby.

TripAdvisor has 240 things to do listed in Cartagena. And it has 102 things to do listed for Santa Marta. While this is unscientific, it helps to demonstrate that there is more than double the number of things to do in the larger city of Cartagena.

Taganga near Santa Marta

Taganga near Santa Marta

Since both Cartagena and Santa Marta are beach locations, both cities have many water-related things to do.  This includes boat trips, scuba diving, deep sea fishing, jet skiing and many others.

We previously looked at the top 16 things to do in Santa Marta and nearby. Also, we looked at a recommended itinerary in Cartagena.

Inside Rafael Núñez Cartagena Airport, photo by David Shankbone

Inside Rafael Núñez Cartagena Airport, photo by David Shankbone

8. Travel Access to North America and Latin America

Cartagena wins hereCartagena’s Rafael Núñez airport is the third largest airport in Colombia. From Cartagena, you can fly non-stop to seven international cities year-round: Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York (JFK), Orlando, Lima and Panama City. In addition, from Cartagena you can fly seasonally to Toronto and Montréal.

Domestically from the Rafael Núñez Airport in Cartagena you can fly non-stop to Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Cúcuta, Medellín, Pereira and San Andrés

Simón Bolívar Santa Marta Airport, photo by Jeancarlos

Simón Bolívar Santa Marta Airport, photo by Jeancarlos

Simón Bolivar International Airport (SMR) in Santa Marta is very small in comparison. From Simón Bolivar airport, there currently are only non-stop domestic flights to Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Medellín, Pereira and San Andrés available. Also, in December 18, 2018, VivaAir added the first Santa Marta international flights to Miami.

The bottom line you can fly non-stop from Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez Airport international airport to several international destinations and more domestic destinations. And your flight options are much more limited in Santa Marta. So, Cartagena wins this category.

9. Public Transportation

The two cities tie here. Neither Cartagena or Santa Marta have a metro system. But both cities have extensive bus routes and inexpensive taxis.

But the taxis in Cartagena and Santa Marta do not have taximeters. So, be careful of inflated taxi fares in both cities.

Some taxi drivers in Cartagena and Santa Marta will take advantage and charge a higher “gringo” fare for foreign tourists. There is an official fare list both cities that taxi drivers are supposed to have in their taxis. But most conveniently don’t have this official list.

To make sure you are not surprised with the fare at the destination when in Cartagena or Santa Marta, always make sure to ask the fare to the destination before getting in a taxi.

10. Restaurants and Nightlife

Cartagena wins here. Cartagena is a bigger city and is visited by more foreign tourists. So, Cartagena has many more restaurant and nightlife options than are found in Santa Marta.

If you look on TripAdvisor, it lists over 800 restaurants in Cartagena but less than 360 restaurants are listed in Santa Marta. This makes sense as Cartagena has about double the metro population of Santa Marta.

Cartagena also has many more nightlife options than are found in Santa Marta, since it’s a bigger city. In addition, the nightlife in Cartagena is more diverse. You can find bars, nightclubs, music and pubs of several styles in Cartagena.

11. Safety – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Santa Marta arguably wins here.  In a survey of Colombians, In terms of feeling safe in their city in this survey, Cartagena was ranked the third worst out of all the cities surveyed. Only 28 percent of respondents in Cartagena felt safe in their city. The compares to 36 percent feeling safe in their city in Santa Marta.

In Cartagena, the touristy El Centro, known as the Walled City, is generally considered one of the safest areas, with virtually no homicides and not very much crime. In addition, the other tourist areas in the city like the beach neighborhoods of Bocagrande and El Laguito are considered relatively safe areas. Also, the tourist areas of Santa Marta like Rodadero is considered a generally safe area.

All of the tourist areas and best residential areas in Cartagena are located in Unidad Comunera Urbana 1. And the 14 other unidades comuneras in Cartganea are generally considered to be much-less-safe areas, where most tourists and expats rarely go.

In terms of homicide rates, Santa Marta ended 2017 with a homicide rate of 13.4 per 100,000 residents. In comparison, the homicide rate in Cartagena in 2018 was much higher at 24.15 per 100,000 residents, which was the highest in 40 years.

With a lower homicide rate in Santa Marta plus surveyed Colombians in Santa Marta feeling safer in their city compared to Cartagena, Santa Marta arguably wins this category.

12. English Proficiency Levels – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Cartagena wins here.  Cartagena is considered a major tourist city so you will frequently find English speakers in hotels and restaurants in the city.  And even some of the taxi drivers and shopkeepers in Cartagena speak some English.

Santa Marta has fewer Colombian English speakers in my experience. You will typically find in Santa Marta a few English speakers in hotels and a few restaurants. Also, executives at larger companies in the city typically are bilingual. But in everyday life in Santa Marta you will find fewer English speakers than in Cartagena.

Out of the cities in Colombia only in Bogotá are you likely to find more English speakers than in Cartagena.

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

13. Mosquitos and Other Bugs

Cartagena arguably wins here. Mosquitos and other types of bugs can be a bigger problem in Santa Marta than in Cartagena.

Reportedly the Aedes aegypi mosquitos that spread the Zika virus infection is prevalent in both Cartagena and Santa Marta. Most notably, the Aedes aegypi mosquitos also spread the Chikungunya virus and dengue fever. So, make sure to take precautions in both cities and use insect repellents.

However, Santa Marta has been experienced more cases of Zika per 100,000 residents than in Cartagena or Barranquilla. In mid-2016, it was reported that Santa Marta was experiencing 376 cases of Zika per 100,000 compared to 348 in Barranquilla and 88 in Cartagena. Since Zika is more prevalent in Santa Marta, Cartagena arguably wins this category.

Earlier this year I met an expat in Medellín that had traveled to Santa Marta and got sick with Zika. This demonstrates that it’s important to take precautions in. And the grocery stores and drug stores in Cartagena and Santa Marta all sell insect repellents.

14. Shopping – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Cartagena wins here.  As a larger city, Cartagena has more Western style malls and many more shopping options than in Santa Marta. The largest malls in Cartagena include Caribe Plaza, Plaza Bocagrande, Paseo de la Castellana and Supercentro Los Ejecutivos.

Inside Buenavista mall in Santa Marta at Christmas, photo courtesy of Buenavista mall

Inside Buenavista mall in Santa Marta at Christmas, photo courtesy of Buenavista mall

The largest mall in Santa Marta is Buenavista mall with less than 150 shops according to its website. The few other malls in Santa Marta are even smaller malls.

15. Job Opportunities – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Cartagena wins here. Cartagena is a bigger city with about double the population. So, there are more job opportunities in Cartagena than in Santa Marta.

However, there aren’t that many work opportunities for foreigners. This is particularly the case if you don’t speak Spanish fluently. Fluency in Spanish is typically required for the best jobs in Colombia.

In both cites you can find English teaching job opportunities if you are a native English speaker. But the pay for English teaching isn’t the greatest and competition is fierce.

In addition, many of the jobs in Cartagena and Santa Marta are tourist related. So, they are typically relatively low paying jobs.

16. Expat Community – Cartagena vs Santa Marta

Cartagena arguably wins here. Cartagena reportedly has a larger expat population living in the city and Cartagena typically has many more foreigner tourists than Santa Marta.

In addition, Cartagena has the Expats in Cartagena Facebook group with over 2,200 members.  In comparison, Santa Marta has the Expat in Santa Marta Facebook Group with about 1,500 members.

Also, as a popular tourist city, Cartagena has many transient foreigner tourists visiting the city all the time. Santa Marta receives much fewer foreigner tourists than Cartagena.

17. Internet Availability

The two cities tie here.  Both Cartagena and Santa Marta have high-speed Internet of up to 300 Mbps speed available.

In Cartagena, you can get up to 300 Mbps Internet speed from Claro. And up to 150 Mbps speed is reportedly available from Tigo-UNE. Most buildings in Cartagena will have service from at least one of these two providers. And both Claro and Tigo-UNE offer triple-play Internet/TV/phone services in Cartagena.

In Santa Marta, you can reportedly also get up to 300 Mbps Internet speed from Claro. And up to 20 Mbps speed is reportedly available from Tigo-UNE. Most buildings in Santa Marta will have service from at least one of these two providers. And both Claro and Tigo-UNE offer triple-play Internet/TV/phone services in Santa Marta.

Similar to other cities in the country, the highest speed Internet in both cities will normally be available only in the newest apartment buildings. In older buildings, you may be limited to lower speeds.

In terms of reliability of Internet, TV, phone, electricity and water services, both cities generally have reliable services. But Santa Marta has sometime had some water problems over the past few of years caused by drought.

The Medellin Guru City and Place Comparisons

We have compared on this website living in Medellin with living in several foreign locations:

Also, we have compared living in different cities in Colombia:

View of Cartagena, Colombia

View of Cartagena, Colombia

The Bottom Line: Cartagena vs Santa Marta

In our Cartagena vs Santa Marta comparison:

  • Cartagena wins in nine of our 17 categories.
  • Santa Marta wins in four of our 17 categories.
  • The two cities tie in four categories.

So, in this unscientific and somewhat subjective Cartagena vs Santa Marta comparison of 17 categories, Cartagena easily wins if you equally weigh the categories.

If having more things to do, more restaurant and shopping options and better access to the U.S. were your most important categories, then Cartagena would win for you. And if avoiding traffic, avoiding traffic plus having better beaches are your most important categories, then Santa Marta would win for you.

Both of these beach cities in Colombia have their pluses and minuses. But I prefer living in Medellín due to it having a much better climate, better healthcare and better public transportation. We previously compared living in Medellín vs Cartagena and Medellín vs Santa Marta. While I decided to live in Medellín, I also like both Cartagena and Santa Marta, as vacation places.

The bottom line in our Cartagena vs Santa Marta comparison is that the best place to live is the best place to live for you. Everyone has different priorities. The only way to know which city is the best for you is to spend time there.

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